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“Climate Apartheid” Could Undo 50 Years Of Poverty Reduction If Drastic Steps Aren’t Taken

Climate change will have the greatest impact on those living in poverty but also threatens democracy and human rights.

By now, most US residents are familiar with the Green New Deal (GND), which guarantees “a job at a living wage for every American willing and able to work”. Many critics argue that bundling the quest for renewable energy with labor goals complicates an already deeply nuanced and contentious battle for humanity’s future.

For example, Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, the top Republican on the Natural Resources Committee, berated the non-binding resolution by saying it is “tantamount to genocide” for rural residents in the country. Democrats have largely responded that the need for a GND comes from decades of inaction and subterfuge by Republicans who are protecting the fossil fuel billionaires.

No, we cannot sit back and deny that climate change is a reality that is causing immediate and increasingly catastrophic consequences in the US and around the world. But — Bishop’s hyperbole aside — even if, somehow, global action toward climate mitigation were to achieve just 1.5°C warming by 2100, regional extreme temperatures will leave disadvantaged populations with food insecurity, lost incomes, and worsening health.

Climate change’s greatest impacts will threaten many elements of our worlds — those living in poverty, human rights, and even democracy — according to the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. People living in poverty are responsible for just a fraction of global emissions; however, in what Philip Alston is calling a ‘climate apartheid’ scenario, impoverished people will bear the brunt of climate change, while the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict.

The result could be a choice between starvation and migration.

“Even if current targets are met, tens of millions will be impoverished, leading to widespread displacement and hunger,” Philip Alston wrote in a recently released report. “Climate change threatens to undo the last 50 years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction. It could push more than 120 million more people into poverty by 2030 and will have the most severe impact in poor countries, regions, and the places poor people live and work.”

Governments Need to Change their Allegiances in Order to Address Climate Change and Poverty

Staying the steady-as-you-go climate action course will be disastrous for the global economy and pull vast numbers into poverty.  The report declares that governments and too many in the human rights community have failed to seriously address climate change for decades. “Somber speeches by government officials have not led to meaningful action,” Alston notes, adding that too many countries continue taking short-sighted steps that pay only marginal attention to human rights in the conversation on climate change.

The failures of States to protect people from climate change in the 1990s and 2000s stemmed from their willingness to extend “extraordinary” protections to investors through the conclusion of a “dizzying” number of international trade and investment treaties during the same period — ignoring apparent contradictions such as how the travel of goods would affect emissions.

States continue to fail to meet even their current inadequate commitments to reduce carbon emissions and provide climate financing while continuing to subsidise the fossil fuel industry with $5.2 trillion per year. “States have marched past every scientific warning and threshold, and what was once considered catastrophic warming now seems like a best-case scenario,” Alston reflects. He argues that climate change represents an emergency without precedent, requires bold and creative thinking from the human rights community, and involves a radically more robust, detailed, and coordinated approach than ever before.

Addressing climate change will require a fundamental shift in the global economy, decoupling improvements in economic well-being from fossil fuel emissions. Alston insists that it is imperative to take climate action in a way that — like the Green New Deal — provides necessary support, protects workers, and creates decent work.

On its current track, climate change will decimate the global economy.

“Abundance in Jeopardy,” photo by Carolyn Fortuna, CleanTechnica (available for use anywhere if credited)

Neglect of Connecting Human Rights to Climate Change Can Lead to Climate Apartheid

The Human Rights Committee’s 2018 General Comment on the right to life broke important new ground by recognizing that “environmental degradation, climate change and unsustainable development constitute some of the most pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy the right to life. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has characterized the human right to a healthy environment as fundamental for the existence of humankind, and having both individual and collective dimensions, including obligations owed to both present and future generations. It concluded that the rights to life and personal integrity, on their own, require States “to prevent significant environmental damages within and outside their territory” and that this, in turn, requires them to:

  • regulate, supervise and monitor the activities under their jurisdiction that could cause significant damage to the environment;
  • carry out environmental impact assessments;
  • prepare contingency plans; and,
  • mitigate any significant environmental damage.

Climate change has immense, but largely neglected, implications for human rights. The rights to life, food, housing, and water will be dramatically affected. Equally important will be the impact on democracy, as governments struggle to cope with the consequences and to persuade their people to accept the major social and economic transformations required.

“In such a setting, civil and political rights will be highly vulnerable,” the 2019 Special Rapporteur said.

This transition will require policies at the local level to support displaced workers and ensure quality jobs. “A robust social safety net will be the best response to the unavoidable harms that climate change will bring,” Alston describes. “This crisis should be a catalyst for states to fulfill long ignored and overlooked economic and social rights, including to social security and access to food, healthcare, shelter, and decent work.”

Although some have turned to the private sector for solutions, an overreliance on for-profit efforts would nearly guarantee massive human rights violations, with the wealthy catered to and the poorest left behind. “If climate change is used to justify business-friendly policies and widespread privatisation, exploitation of natural resources, and global warming may be accelerated rather than prevented,” Alston outlines.

“There is no shortage of alarm bells ringing over climate change, and an increase in biblical-level extreme weather events appear to be finally piercing through the noise, misinformation, and complacency, but these positive signs are no reason for contentment,” Alston continues. “A reckoning with the scale of the change that is needed is just the first step.”

Final Thoughts

Maintaining the current course is a recipe for economic catastrophe. The Special Rapporteur summarizes that economic prosperity and environmental sustainability are fully compatible, but require decoupling economic well-being and poverty reduction from fossil fuel emissions.

According to the ILO, 1.2 billion jobs—40% of global employment—rely on a sustainable and healthy environment. In what many regard as the best-case scenario (1.5 °C of warming by 2100), heat stress will reduce global working hours 2 percent by 2030 alone — the equivalent of 72 million full-time jobs, and most likely this is an underestimate. Pollution and environmental degradation will affect workers’ productivity, health, income, and food security.

The Special Rapporteur’s Report outlines that a robust social safety net and a well-managed transition to a green economy will be the best response to the unavoidable harms that climate change will bring. Climate change, Alston relates, should be a catalyst for States to fulfill long ignored and overlooked economic and social rights, including to social security, water and sanitation, education, food, healthcare, housing, and decent work. Revenue from climate action, including emissions control and tax restructuring, should be used to fund social protection programs to protect those affected.

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. She's won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. As part of her portfolio divestment, she purchased 5 shares of Tesla stock. Please follow her on Twitter and Facebook.


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